DAYTON, Ohio — An apologetic Kevin O’Neill is eager to get back to basketball.
The USC coach, suspended for the Pac-10 semifinal after a verbal confrontation with a fan, began a NCAA news conference Tuesday by again saying he was sorry for his behavior.
“Let’s get it out of the way right off,” he said, an instant after sitting down. “I want to apologize once again for getting suspended during the Pac-10 Tournament. I’m held to a high standard. The highest standard as the leader of our team. I didn’t live up to that (and) suffered the consequences.”
The Trojans (19-14) take on VCU (23-11) in today’s First Four game at the University of Dayton Arena. The winner faces a quick turnaround game against sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday in Chicago.
But O’Neill, in his second year of a massive rebuilding project, wasn’t even certain he’d still be with the team this week.
“Coaches are always fearful of those things,” he said of potentially being let go. “I certainly didn’t want to get fired. Guys make mistakes. I made a big mistake, and (USC’s administration has) been very understanding, very worthwhile in their support.”
The Trojan players consider O’Neill’s suspension and subsequent apology as a sort of team-building exercise.
“You can tell that he really felt like he let us down,” guard Jio Fontan said. “It’s something that I think he’s glad that he went through for the learning part of it. And we feel like as a team it’s kind of something we benefited from, brought us all together, brought us all closer.
We definitely got to see another side of the coaching staff that we would not have seen if that altercation hadn’t happened.”
Assistant coach Bob Cantu led USC against Arizona in the Pac-10 semifinals. Cantu is a Paso Robles native and former Cuesta College assistant coach.
VCU, like USC, wasn’t considered a lock to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Rams coach Shaka Smart said he and his players are driven by all the slings and arrows.
“We use that as motivation with our players,” he said. “We have some guys that they love it when people doubt them. It really feeds their competitive juices. The reality is all that is just drama surrounding the NCAA Tournament. Now, the fans, the media love drama. As a coach and as players, it has nothing to do with when the ball goes up in the air (tonight) at 9 o’clock. That drama all goes away.”
VCU had lost four of its five games entering the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, shocked regular-season champion George Mason in the semifinals and then fell to Old Dominion 70-65 in the title game.
Regardless, the Rams earned their first at-large berth in the NCAA since 1984.
“It gives us a certain incentive with everybody doubting us and not believing we deserve to be here,” guard Bradford Burgess said. “It gives us extra motivation in the game to prove it.”
USC, predicted to finish sixth in the Pac-10, did not play in any postseason tournaments last year because of NCAA violations committed under coach Tim Floyd.
O’Neill, known as a fixer-upper in prior jobs at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, was called in to try to revive the Trojans. Led by 6-foot-10 junior Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 17.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, they have made a remarkable resurgence.
“This will be a great opportunity for us to show people who we are, what we can do,” Vucevic said. “People don’t know about us too much, but we can show people we deserve to be in this tournament, that we’re a great team, that we can compete with anybody.”
And their coach will be right there with them.